Tampering in Godz domain…
Giant monster terrorizes Tokyo. From the depths of hell it came, roaring, spitting fire, destroying civilization; black of heart and devoid of empathy. And it probably had a really small brain too. It was called – The United States of America…
People think they know Godzilla. Even you think you know Godzilla. No, you don’t. That goes for me as well. I’ve seen those culty Toho Company crap-fests with the guys in the rubber suits smashing toy planes, and as a youth I was exposed to GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS! (the barbaric American re-edit of the original Toho film, the only version available in English-speaking countries until the mid-80s). So I approached the original Toho GODZILLA/GOJIRA (1954) with the same tongue-in-ass-cheek flippancy I brought to all those B-movie monster mashes that salted our youthful Sunday afternoons.
And I wept.
I wept because this somber parable of nuclear abuse, this pioneer of monster moviedom, has undergone such a misunderstood legacy on the strength of its inferior successors.
Written by Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, and directed by Honda, the opening scene of GODZILLA shows a Japanese fishing boat being overwhelmed by a flash of light – and something big. This vignette mirrors the fate of the real life Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), a fishing boat that waded unknowingly into the umbra of an American hydrogen bomb test (termed Castle Bravo) at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in March 1954. In its opening frames, the movie hooks into sociological context. As the film progresses, the hooks would only sink deeper.
Following this tragedy, reports flood in of a large “monster” destroying nearly 20 ships. Sightings of the creature near Odo Island lead paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, SEVEN SAMURAI) to investigate with his Geiger counter and Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), his window dressing daughter who can’t act.
From Odo Island tradition, Yamane proposes calling the mysterious creature “Gojira.” (David Kalat, in his stellar commentary on the Criterion DVD release, gives an excellent explanation on how the phonetics were translated to Godzilla, and how both words are linguistically correct – and how even some elitist “Gojira” purists are actually mispronouncing that word! The emphasis should be on the “Go” not the “ji,” smartypantses! Kalat’s commentary is enormous as the beast itself – lucid, informative, educative, humorous. For movie-philes, I cannot recommend the commentary enough!)
Meanwhile, the military is trying to kill this “monster of the century” with depth charges. Of course, this was before the military knew Godzilla couldn’t be killed by anything. Matter of fact, like all the muttonhead Godzilla movies in its wake, even after they discover Godzilla can’t be killed, they continue to fire at him anyway. Because they’re the military. And that’s all that those blockheads know how to do. Take away their firepower and they’re a cult who likes marching in time and showering together.
Dr. Yamane gives a conference on the Godzilla scourge, in a supposedly scientific slide presentation that is completely fatuous; showing old-school drawings of fat brontosaurs and fat tyrannosaurs, and lecturing, “2 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth–” wait, what?! (After decades of translations and edits, this particularly noticeable mistake has never been corrected. People are just idiots.) Then he shows his photo of the monster, as it peers above a ridge on Odo Island – the first actual sighting of the Godzilla puppet. And it’s a drawing of a tyrannosaur.
He says the creature is “from the Jurassic, and was probably hiding away in a deep sea cave, until H-bomb testing drove it from its abode.” He corroborates this claim with a trilobite found in the creature’s onshore footprint (even though trilobites were from a far earlier epoch). How about that? The name “Jurassic” being used as a Power Phrase long before Crichton and Spielberg co-opted, trademarked and abused it!
That being said… there’s something fishy swimming around Toho … and I’m going to take the time to tease out the threads. As Neil deGrasse Tyson might say in COSMOS 2014, “Come with me…”
Godzilla: Victim of H-Bomb – or not?
Since time immemorial we’ve been conditioned to believe that Godzilla was some kind of normal reptile until an H-Bomb explosion rocked his genetics into fire-breathing giant. But let’s pore through the evidence for his real origin:
1) Dr Yamane speculates Godzilla is actually a Jurassic animal, saying that H-bomb testing didn’t create it, but shook it from its ecosystem.
2) Dr Yamane defers to “island tradition” to call the creature Godzilla. That’s where the lightbulb pops: what island tradition? I thought this creature was just “shaken loose” by nuclear testing – which is merely a few years old. How does it turn up in traditional tales?
3) The village elder on the island tells of a creature named Godzilla from “the old days” that used to “eat all the fish in the sea and then come ashore and start eating people.”
CONCLUSION: This creature’s appearance has nothing to do with the H-Bomb destroying its home because it used to raid this island during the elder’s youth. And H-bomb testing is only two years old (1952, and this movie is set in 1954). Was the elder a little boy only 2 years ago? And if Godzilla apologists want to claim the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the WMDs referenced, then those were still only 9 years ago (in 1945), not nearly enough time to be referred to as “the old days.”
So to get this straight: Godzilla is NOT the product of H-bomb testing, and is therefore not really a victim of it. But – as Yamane points out – Godzilla is emitting high levels of H-bomb radiation from his body (traces of strontium-90 in his footprint – specific to hydrogen bombs), which does make him an unwilling victim of radiation poisoning. But – again, let’s say it explicitly – he wasn’t some alligator who strolled by a mushroom cloud and became a giant plodding mess. He is supposedly a prehistoric giant creature to begin with that has been irradiated by H-bomb testing.
I know this movie is meant to be a message to America re. their irresponsibility with nuclear power, but America can actually breathe a sigh of relief because Godzilla already existed like that and– uh oh… The very next line is where Godzilla is irrevocably linked to the H-bomb when a politician remarks, “…if this Godzilla thing is the result of H-bomb testing…”
Words matter. Someone – everyone – latched onto those words and down through time, they have become Godzilla’s version of “Play it again, Sam.” No one remembers the nuance, or the fact that Godzilla doesn’t play the piano.
While the politicians want to repress the information about the big lizard so as not to “strain diplomatic relations,” the public cries out for freedom of information, “the truth is the truth!” To be clear, America/United States is never mentioned throughout the movie, but we all know who they’re talking about whenever they say, “nuclear (wink wink) power.”
“Gojira” is a composite of the words for whale and gorilla, which is ironic, considering the Godzilla creature is not only a whale of an 800-pound gorilla, but also the elephant in the room. Godzilla didn’t just represent Nuclear Power – specifically, American Abuse of that power. No one wanted to talk about it after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), but with this 1954 movie, Japan poked its fingers into America’s chest and said, “Raaahhraagh!”
GODZILLA also showcases the age-old struggle between Science and Military. And unlike many movies where scientists are relegated to doddering idiots and military men elevated to biggus dickus, here both science and military are given equal shrift, with the lean towards Science (after all, the scientist is the most respected actor in the movie, not some dork), which is why Godzilla’s death bodes such tragedy.
Dr. Yamane: “Why don’t they try to study its resistance to radiation? All they’re trying to do is kill it!” (also a theme in GODZILLA 2000). When the military approach him on how to destroy the creature, Yamane tells them, with a mix of admiration and futility, “Godzilla was baptized in the fires of the H-bomb. What could kill it now?”
GODZILLA does something all of its inferior sequels try to do and fail: develop powerful human characters and interrelationships.
There is the legendary Takashi Shimura, whose magnificently tragic performance as Dr. Yamane overshadows everything like a planet blocking out the sun. His gravitas infuses the film with a bedrock of empathy that no roaring rubber could compromise. His daughter Emiko is in love with a young man, Ogata (Akira Takanada). Yet she is tacitly betrothed to the reclusive scientist, the eye-patched Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata).
The love triangle will not play out like a turgid DAYS OF OUR LIVES episode, but would provide a subtle background to the decisions the characters make.
Serizawa has developed a secret weapon that can kill Godzilla. He calls it [wait for the orchestra stabs] the Oxygen Destroyer! [dun dun daaaah!] A completely specious plot element that is only “scientific” because Serizawa is wearing a lab coat when he’s saying it with a straight face. A device that “removes all the oxygen from water,” turning his fish into skeletons. Uh… if you remove the oxygen from H2O, you’ll be left with molecules of H (hydrogen), and as a gas or liquid, hydrogen doesn’t dissolve flesh. I think you’re thinking of hydrochloric acid, dude…
Serizawa hesitates to make his discovery public – even though Godzilla has killed so many – not because he has any love for the creature (he is not coming at it from a conservationist angle like Yamane), but because, “What if the discovery is used for some awful purpose?” He created it for pure science, yet knows it can extinguish humanity – just like the H-bomb. Message coming in, America! “If used even once, politicians won’t stand by idly – they’ll inevitably turn it into a weapon. A-bombs against A-bombs, H-bombs against H-bombs… something I can’t allow.” So fanatical for using it for peace, Serizawa stoically proclaims, “I’d gladly give my life for it and destroy the formula should anyone force me to use it!”
When Ogata and Emiko beseech him to use it just this once to stop this menace, Serizawa also has an answer to that: “As long as I’m alive, who can say I wouldn’t be coerced into using it again?” And he’s not saying “alive” lightly…
a fright on the town
Over an ominous, odd-signature soundtrack (by Akira Ifukube), Godzilla at last rises from the sea in full grandeur, 165 feet tall, humanoid posture, triple-spiked backbone, scraped flesh, slashing reptilian tail, gargling flames, on a mission to tear up Tokyo.
During this eerie night sequence, in the flickering of searchlights, fires and rockets, at last we see the debilitating effects of the H-bomb. Godzilla as metaphor – and as reality. With skin scarred and charred, the creature is probably in searing pain; he cannot vocalize, can only lash out. As metaphor, he is one country’s irresponsibility decimating another. As reality, he lashes out at what created him – mankind. Well, maybe. (see above: Godzilla: Victim of H-Bomb – or not?)
Crowds watch in terror from afar (including Yamane, Emiko and Ogata), as Godzilla destroys a train, decimates factories with his massive feet, and melts high-tension towers with his fiery breath. (When he blows fire, his spikes light up – a cartooning process.)
The process shots and double-exposures (showing the beast in the same frame as scurrying people) look very authentic, and are definitely styled after Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (one of the inspirations for this film). And its roar is GIGANTIC! (Created by stroking contrabass strings with a glove and slowing down the audio. Over the years, Godzilla’s roar would deteriorate to that of a hawk-like screee, then to an unbearable puling fishwife.)
Under the pretense of wanton destruction, there is yet more sociological meat. I’m no Japanese historian, so I wouldn’t know what’s being destroyed, but Godzilla historian David Kalat informs us that Godzilla destroys every element of modern society, from recognizable Japanese landmarks to the hallmarks of civilization: government buildings, electricity, transport, media – basically “blowing humanity back to the dark ages” (which is what Bryan Cranston cries out in GODZILLA 2014). As destructive as, say… a hydrogen bomb (cough–America)?
And Yamane, watching all from a hillside, is beset on all sides by people screaming for Godzilla’s death. “How do we kill the bastard?” “Damn beast!” How can he advocate to keep Godzilla alive amidst this destruction? And on his face, we read that letdown expression, like his prize pooch is pooing on everyone at the Governor’s Ball!
The despair on Yamane’s face will sober us – followed immediately by toy tanks… shooting shooting pow pow pow it’s playtime! The toy tanks are ineffectual, so they send in toy planes, where we see every string pulling them and “launching” their missiles. The sublime, the ridiculous.
Serizawa accedes to using his Oxygen Destroyer. At a price that is devastating. Oh, he succeeds in killing the creature, but – as he predicted – he must also take his own life so that no one can use his invention for war.
It’s a searing climax that brings all the elements of the love triangle, the beast, the science, the destruction together and shakes them into a milkshake as thick as guilt.
As the weapon is deployed and Godzilla rises to the surface and screams in agony for the last time, we wonder why we weep. Because it’s a happy ending, right? The humans won against the monster, right? … right?
We weep for Godzilla because he is blameless. He is the lion at the zoo that kills someone for poking their hand into the cage. Why must the lion die for doing what he does in nature? He is KING KONG, an innocent animal who pays for the venality of man’s disruption of nature. It wasn’t “beauty killed the beast” Carl Denham, you twit – it was beast (Man) that killed beauty (Nature).
It is the nature of nuclear power to destroy humankind, not because it is actively malignant, but because Man cannot control it. Simple as that. Nuclear power vis a vis Godzilla did not draw first blood.
We weep with Yamane for the science lost, for the nature disrupted. We weep with the young boy who called it “bastard!” We weep for Serizawa’s sacrifice, and the fact that he knew Emiko was in love with another man (Serizawa wishes them happiness just before he cuts into his suit underwater); the audience weeps, the people onboard the boat weep. And the people weeping the loudest – the marketers! You killed off this sequel-licious property in the first movie? Are you insane, Honda?
Godzilla’s production values were a product of their times, and for its time, GODZILLA is a monumental product. The movie pioneered matte paintings, shooting through glass, double exposures; pioneered portraying heroic suicide/sacrifice, and yes, it even pioneered a plausible, workable “monster movie” model (pun intended) that was affordable and effective. And all other aspects are stellar: the stone cold sober performances (especially from Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura, whose anguish will bring tears to your eyes); fantastic staging, even the ominous, urgent soundtrack. And the guys in the actual Godzilla suit (Katsumi Tezua, Haruo Nakajima and Jiro Suzuki) do not drag the production down, because everything else is holding it up mightily. The monster headpiece is actually creepy and otherworldly. Rather than the cookie-monster doe eyes of his successors-in-suits, this first Godzilla has dead shark eyes. It’s kinda terrifying now. Imagine its impact in 1954!
If only the franchise had moved with the times, into the chroma-key age (with STAR WARS and SUPERMAN) and then into the computer graphic age, it would not have that goofy legacy overhanging its plastic headpiece. Which is why GODZILLA 2014 is actually a “good” movie in the series; not great, just good, because at last it brings Godzilla production values up to par with modern times, yet still unfortunately neglects a compelling story.
As a choral backing sings us out, Yamane laments/preaches: “I believe that Godzilla was the last of its species. If nuclear testing continues, someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear…”
Godzilla the monster was the manifestation of untamed, unmanageable power; blowback for harnessing that power and arrogantly thinking to control it. The elements that created that unmanageable power are still existent, in the form of militarized countries, who have only grown more hubristic with the passage of time, over how well they are reigning in that power. Little do these brave chickenhawks know, they are powerless stewards of something which will eventually rise up and kill them. And I, for one, cannot wait for that day…
Godzilla still lives!